Kerr’s Marine Tool Co. has been in West Orange County for 57 years, and five generations of family have worked in some capacity.
Bob Kerr owned Kerr’s Marine shop for 20 years, working on outboard motors, but he didn’t have anything solid to hold the motors while he worked on them. He devised a stand that made this work more efficient. This invention, and many subsequent patents, created a lucrative career for the Winter Garden man, whose business has employed multiple generations of his family.
Bob Kerr’s Marine Tool Co. — which Bob and Helen Kerr established in 1963, two decades after he started building marine tools — is celebrating its 57th anniversary this year. Sue and Fred Crabtree, the Kerrs’ daughter and son-in-law, have owned the business since 2001, and their daughter, Karen Crabtree, is the president and general manager.
The company still produces products geared toward the marine industry, mainly holding fixtures and work stands.
The first store was on Plant Street just east of downtown Winter Garden, where Bob Kerr built wood boats. He also sold sporting goods, bait and tackle, sporting goods, fishing licenses, Woolsey paint, and Jacobson lawn mowers — anything he could to earn money. His father, Don Roderick, worked for him at some point.
The businesses’ first move was to West Colonial Drive with Kerr’s Marine Sports & Equipment. Bob Kerr’s Marine Service later operated nearby.
Bob Kerr designed and patented many of the tools that are sold today. His son-in-law, Fred Crabtree, holds several patents as well.
Sue Crabtree’s brother, Jim Kerr, eventually purchased the original marine shop. He worked at his parents’ company too.
Their son-in-law, Fred Crabtree, began his career with his wife’s family business in 1964, working nights and weekends.
“(Bob) came to me and said: ‘I’m going to make you a deal. I want to hire you full-time. If you don’t ask me to pay you too much, I won’t ask you to work too much,’” Fred Crabtree said.
He served as manager until 1992.
As the firm grew, so did the need for larger quarters. The company moved again to space on Smith Street and Sixth Avenue. Today, their office is on Dillard Street.
All three Crabtree children have earned paychecks there. The Crabtrees’ daughter, Karen, and their late son, Jimmy, both have served as general manager. Andy Crabtree did the yard work for a while before venturing out and opening a business of his own. He creates all the company’s artwork and advertisements.
Jimmy Crabtree also worked for Custom Metal Designs, in Oakland, which is one of the fabricators used by Kerr’s Marine.
“Karen started when she was 12 probably and never stopped working for us,” Sue Crabtree said.
She operated the addressograph machine, an address labeling apparatus.
“The receptionist they had at the time was allergic to plastic,” she said. “We had an old machine that made address labels on these plastic plates. The machine was called an addressograph, and that was my first job working there … making those plates at 25 cents an hour.”
The Crabtrees’ daughter-in-law, Lorie Crabtree, was employed there too.
And now another generation of the family has joined the business — Fred and Sue Crabtree’s granddaughters Mattie Crabtree and Ella Crabtree will be filing this year.
ALL IN THE FAMILY
In a family-owned business, everyone pitches in. In 1972, when Sue Crabtree began her employment, her father and grandfather built the product during the day and she and her mother packed the orders at night.
Kerr’s Marine Tool Co. has had several locations in Oakland and Winter Garden, but one thing never changes —a Kerr or Crabtree always is overseeing the company.
“I thought I married her, but I married the whole … family,” Fred Crabtree said. “We’ve been fortunate that we’ve all gotten along being that close all day long. There have been great times, there have been challenges, ups and downs, the economy.”
Sue Crabtree said her father put his own name on his products from the very beginning, and it has become known for its quality.
“One thing that my dad established early on was the name Kerr,” she said. “In the marine industry, it’s well known. We don’t do any advertising. We’re in all the training schools – the mechanics that go to Mercury or anywhere else, they get trained on our equipment. The same way with all the technical schools and vocational schools — we sell to them. We sell to the military. And then the marine dealers.”
When Bob Kerr retired in the 1990s, his wife and Fred and Sue Crabtree continued the business.
THE EARLY DAYS
Bob Kerr had double hernias from picking up heavy equipment, Fred Crabtree said, so his first motor stand was made so he could continue working.
A Johnson Motors service representative heard about the product and sent Bob Kerr to Illinois to meet the chairman of the board of Outboard Marine Corp. There, he was told that no one made this product and the marine industry had a big need for it. Outboard Marine even helped him start the business and promoted it.
Bob Kerr and Fred Crabtree built the products and loaded them on a truck, and Bob and Helen Kerr drove to all over the United States to areas with lakes and other bodies of water and sold their equipment. Fred Crabtree remained in Central Florida continuing to build.
“We would build enough stuff to load whatever that truck could hold, and they would go on the road,” Fred Crabtree said. “We got smarter and … figured about where he would sell out and we would ship boxes to that location from the train depot downtown.”
The Kerr team called the office every three days with orders that needed to be processed. They made friends with many people in the marine industry, and their tools were known worldwide. Bob and Helen Kerr were married 60 years when he died in 1997. She died four years later, and the Crabtree trio runs the company today.
Karen Crabtree works with customers, Sue Crabtree handles finances and reports, and Fred Crabtree oversees the five fabricators and builds some of the tools. Most of the work is contracted out.
“I have loved working with and for my family,” Karen Crabtree said. “I can remember when my grandparents were still alive and worked there; when they pulled up outside, play time was over. You'd jump up and run to your desk and act like you've been working away for hours.
“Today I spend a lot of my time fixing my mom’s computer, printer, iPhone, tablet, you name it — but I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. She's my best friend.